Never Panic Early

“Be thankful for problems. If they were less difficult, someone with less ability might have your job.”
-Jim Lovell, American Astronaut

Your mind won’t stop tormenting you. “Why did I do this,” you think to yourself. Solace in the inner world is long gone, and what is left is a string of unresolved questions, all carrying with them an air of negativity, doubt, and energy-draining baggage. 

You can feel your heart-rate spike with every thought of the issue, and it feels like the world is ending. 

We have all been there. And you know who else was? The crew of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission, who had at one point or another on their journey, addressed their God in preparation for imminent death. This story is about why panicking early usually isn’t the best idea and why holding onto hope during trying periods is sometimes all it takes to make it. 

Slated to be the world’s third landing on the moon, the Apollo 13 capsule experienced an explosion within one of the system’s oxygen tanks prior to touching the lunar surface. Following a loud explosion, crew members were alerted to a plethora of blinking red lights and buzzing systems onboard the ship as it hurled silently through the vacuum of space, the Earth a mere blueberry in a sea of never-ending blackness out their windows.

Everything these astronauts ever knew and ever loved was over 200,000 miles away. The precious oxygen they needed to breathe and operate was spewing from external vents, draining both the capsule and the crew of vital resources.

Something needed to happen. And fast. 

Due to the limited knowledge of those onboard regarding the design and layout of the ship, the search for a solution was directed to mission control in Cape Canaveral, FL, to be guided by the individuals who built it.

On the ground at HQ, teams of the nation’s brightest engineers rushed to find a solution, tinkering with components to hemorrhage the quickly deteriorating oxygen supply on board. 

Throughout this process, while they waited for instructions from those on the ground, the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 remained calm in a bleak situation. Panicking in this scenario, though warranted, would have drained their oxygen quicker from increased breathing and clouded their minds from precise execution. So, they waited, trusting that the team who sent them up would get them back down, safe and sound. 

I will not bore you with details, and if you want a more in-depth glimpse into the nuances of this mission, I recommend the movie creatively titled Apollo 13. Long story short, those on board were able to remove carbon dioxide from their module by utilizing duct tape and the environmental control system onboard the lunar module, slingshotting around the moon to land safely back home here on Earth. 

I find this story valuable because it displays the power of keeping calm when everything around you seems to be falling apart. So many times throughout our business journey, we find ourselves at crossroads, torn between throwing in the towel or pushing forward despite the challenges. During such periods, it’s easy to resort to panic and lean into the chaos of both the internal and the external—those who last are the ones who learn how to remain calm. Unfortunately, the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 had limited options as to finding a solution, but you and I thankfully have more leeway. 

You can’t give yourself an out. To the astronauts aboard Apollo 13, quitting would have meant guaranteed death. Chances of success in our endeavors are raised when we remove the fallback options. There is only one way out of a loaded cannon. You need to burn the ships and push forward, no matter how hard things appear. When you don’t give yourself an out, trying times become easier because you aren’t asking yourself, “should I keep going or should I quit.” The decision has already been made, leaving your mental resources available to maneuver the rough waters. 

Panic at the first inkling of a less than optimal situation is also a degradation of your self-belief. Regardless of what happens, you need to have complete faith in your abilities to move through whatever comes your way. Why? Because nothing is thrown your way that you can’t handle. When you panic at the first instance of something going wrong, you’re telling yourself you don’t believe you have what it takes to handle the rough waters. The astronauts aboard Apollo 13, had they panicked, would likely not have made it through the trying times they faced. Were they worried? Definitely. Did they panic? No.

There is a significant difference between panic and worry. From a definition perspective, panic is marked by an uncontrollable sensation of anxiety, while worry is characterized by the individual “giving way” to feelings of unease. Worry is healthy, while panic is not. Worry is controllable, like a water tap, while panic is akin to smashing the faucet altogether. Do not grab the sledgehammer and smash the faucet. 

When things start to go south, comparable to when the astronauts aboard the capsule heard that first loud explosion and saw the red lights flashing, it is imperative not to react immediately. Instead, take a second to assess the situation. When filtered through our emotions, reality is often much worse than it appears. Seneca famously stated, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” a phrase that rings true as much today as it did 2,000 years ago.

Refuse yourself the urge to give in to the strong emotional currents that move swiftly below your placid rational mind. Though your ancestors faced daily death hundreds of years ago, you likely are not. The issues that cause so much panic and torment are most definitely not a matter of life and death. So stop treating them like they are. 

I’ll leave you with one last quote that I always refer back to when things get tense and heated up. On a podcast I do not remember, A-rod said there is a marked difference between amateurs and professionals. 

“Champions never panic.”

So don’t panic. It really is that simple. Instead, have a rough plan, believe in your ability to maneuver and execute, and realize you aren’t trapped in a metal coffin hurtling towards the moon with a rapidly depleting oxygen supply.

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